Familiarity with the tools of propaganda was once limited to governments, media and other powerful groups that, having a monopoly on the means of communication, could use the craft to indoctrinate the masses without opposition. Some experts on propaganda, though, seek to educate the public and equip society to better withstand those methods of persuasion commonly associated (for very different reasons) with the names Orwell and Goebbels. In today’s information age, communications experts who teach vigilance against propaganda have become more effective in neutralizing their counterparts who seek to indoctrinate.
The dichotomy between propagandist and communications expert, though, is not always so clear cut.
Gary Fields, an assistant professor in the communication department at the University of California, San Diego, is seemingly an expert on propaganda — he wrote on the subject in a May 29, 2005 San Diego Union-Tribune Op-Ed. Yet, while professing to educate on propaganda, he simultaneously employs the very techniques he condemns as a means to rewrite the Arab-Israeli conflict and demonize Israel.
In his Op-Ed, entitled “Power, Propaganda and the Promised Land,” Fields argues that Israel, as the “powerful side,” succeeds in using language “to disseminate truth selectively through a process of representation and concealment.” To this end, he contends, the country malevolently uses “emotionally charged metaphor,” “potent slogans,” “repetition,” and Orwellian “newspeak.”
Thus, the argument continues, any Israeli mention of terrorism does not arise from valid concerns for the safety of the country’s citizens or the long-term viability of the state; rather, Fields suggests, Israeli references to terrorism should be written off as mere propaganda.
Having “invalidated” Israeli concerns by proclaiming them propaganda, the professor proceeds to formulate his own brand of propaganda, one which defines Israeli counter-terror measures as the singular obstacle to peace.
With terrorism off the table as a point of consideration, Israeli security measures such as checkpoints, travel restrictions, and the security barrier must be explained without acknowledging their counter-terror purpose. Fields, then, can portray them as elements of a “matrix of control” designed only to oppress Palestinians. (Originally coined by anti-Israel activist Jeff Halper, the phrase “matrix of control” is one example of an “emotionally charged metaphor” repeated — some might say propagandistically — by Fields.)
Not only does Fields disqualify terrorism as a valid concern, but he also conceals the history of the conflict by focusing readers only on the “the occupation” and recent Israeli security measures. Though an effective technique for anti-Israeli activists, this framing of the whole Israeli-Arab conflict in terms of “the occupation” is illogical and misleading.
First, Israeli-Arab friction predates “the occupation” — Israel’s 1967 capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip — by decades. In his lengthy essay, Fields not once acknowledges the steadfast Arab rejectionism of the Jewish peoples’ return to their ancestral homeland — rejectionism which existed even in 1917, when Jewish self-determination in Palestine was first secured under international law with the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Palestine Mandate, and which still exists today. He ignores the 1929 massacre of over 100 Jewish civilians by rioting Arabs, and the many other attacks like it in the years before Israel was founded. He overlooks the 1947 United Nations compromise to divide the land between Jews and Arabs, which the former accepted and the latter rejected with a campaign of violence that escalated into the war for Israeli independence. Fields also ignores the fact that Yasir Arafat’s al-Fatah terrorist organization was formed in 1964, again before “the occupation.”
Furthermore, Fields’ suggestion that “the occupation and its consequences” should be the starting point of all discussion is exposed as specious when one remembers that the recent upsurge in anti-Israeli terrorism began in late 2000, after Arafat was offered a peace deal that would have ended “the occupation.” (According to former diplomat Dennis Ross and New Yorker magazine reporter Elsa Walsh, Saudi Arabian diplomat Prince Bandar bin Sultan considered Arafat’s rejection of the deal “a crime” [Missing Peace, 748; New Yorker, 3/24/03].)
The fact that anti-Jewish violence in the Holy Land was prevalent well before Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that this violence surged precisely when Israel proposed the most far-reaching territorial withdrawals, demonstrates that one must look beyond “the occupation” to fully understand the conflict.
Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz succinctly exposed another flaw in this line of thinking when he wrote: “The primary cause of terrorism is not occupation, humiliation, or desperation. If it were, the Tibetans would be the greatest terrorists” (FrontPage Magazine, July 8, 2005).
While distorting readers’overall understanding of the conflict, Fields also deceives readers on specifics. For example, he states:
I saw settlers from the Israeli West Bank settlement of Zufim adjacent to the Palestinian town of Jayeous seize land belonging to Jayeous resident Tawfiq Hasan Salim, an olive farmer whose family has owned the land in question for the past 200 years. With protection from Israeli occupation forces, contractors hired by Zufim uprooted and bulldozed Salim’s 300 olive trees to make way for settlement expansion.
As reported in the Dec. 29, 2004 New York Times, the facts surrounding this case are not as clear as Fields suggests. Tawfiq Salim does claim the land belongs to him, but Israel concluded, after studying the matter, that the land was sold to an Israeli company.
Fields also falsely claims that Israel has created “a system of segregation” where freedom of movement is “based upon religious identity.” Though he does not provide any specifics, making verification of the assertion difficult, he might be alluding to the familiar propaganda line that in Israel Jews and non-Jews are given different color license plates. This is false. While there are certain West Bank roads open only to drivers with yellow Israeli license plates, (all Israelis — Jewish, Muslim and Christian — have yellow plates), Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have blue plates. Needless to say, it is not religious discrimination for a nation to have a particular license plate distinct from those used by non-citizens. In short, Israeli Muslims and Christians have the same freedom of movement as Israeli Jews.
Elsewhere, writing about Israeli settlements, Fields states:
So successful is the Israeli discourse of concealment … that it has managed to convince American news organizations to refrain from mentioning the words “settlement” or “illegal” when referr ing to these installations.
This is a patently ridiculous statement. Not only does the San Diego Union-Tribune, which published Fields’ Op-Ed, regularly use the word “settlement,” but so does virtually every media outlet in the United States. On the day Fields’ Op-Ed claimed American news organizations “refrain from mentioning” the word, editorials in the Washington Post, Kansas City Star, and Sunday Oklahoman specifically mentioned “settlements.”
As for the word “illegal,” it is true that some American news organizations avoid using this term to describe settlements. This is for the simple reason that the legality of settlements is disputed. Former U.S. Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow repeatedly countered the Palestinian claim that Israeli settlements are illegal. One of the foremost experts on jurisprudence and international law, the late Julius Stone, went even further, asserting that the effort to designate Israeli settlements on the disputed territories as illegal was a “subversion … of basic international law principles.” Responsible news organizations, then, avoid the word “illegal” or “legal” to describe settlements because news should not advocate for one stance over the other. (Still, contrary to Fields’ claim, some news organizations do use the word “illegal” to describe settlements.)
Gary Fields’ highly misleading attack on Israel underscores the importance of critically analyzing messages (whether on the Arab-Israeli conflict or any other contentious topic) not only from the media, but also from professors whose interest in advocating a particular cause might outweigh their interest in providing accurate and nuanced information.